A long long time ago in land called 2007, I wrote a little bit about characters and likeability. Here's how I feel about it:
Characters don't have to be likeable.
They have to be relatable.
There's a difference. The reason why this topic comes up again now is that I read a post on the Bookends blog in which Jessica talks about characters and likeability. She says, in part:
I do believe that characters have to be likeable for a book to work. That doesn’t mean, however, that characters can’t have flaws or unlikeable characteristics. I tend to use Hannibal Lecter a lot as an example, but I think he’s such a fabulous example and tends to be a character most people are familiar with. Who could imagine creating a horrific serial killer who is actually likeable? On paper that doesn’t make any sense. On the book page you see how it works. Okay, maybe he’s not entirely “likeable,” but he’s certainly fascinating enough that you need to keep reading about him. Sure, he eats people, but he’s also brilliant and oddly, in his own way, kind to Clarice Starling.But notice what happens at the end of Jessica's paragraph -- "maybe he's not entirely 'likeable.'" Maybe? Maybe Hannibal Lecter isn't "entirely likeable"? He's a cannibal who kills people for fun. Sometimes (oftentimes) by exploiting their psychological weaknesses.
This is where Jessica and I part company. Hannibal Lecter is not likeable. He's fascinating, he's interesting, and he does have his own unique moral code, which means that readers can come to identify with him and understand him, but he's not likeable. That's the difference between her position and mine -- I believe that characters have to be relatable. Once they are, they don't have to be good people, or nice, or kind, or anything else that lets you like them. Once you understand them, you can watch characters to reprehensible things* and still want them to come out on top. You can root for someone you can relate to and understand, even if you don't want to spend time with them.
I think I understand what Jessica's saying here, that characters that are gross or despicable or off-putting don't sell books. She's totally right. But the answer to grossness isn't to make a character less gross--it's to make the reader understand why the character is gross,** what it means that the character is gross, and then the reader will be more likely to read it.
* Like, for example, sawing off the top of someone's skull and sauteing pieces of his brain while he's still alive and then making him eat it. Or hanging someone by his entrails. Or biting out some innocent nurse's tongue.
** I'm not necessarily talking about backstory here, by the way -- in my personal opinion, backstory killed Hannibal Lecter -- understanding a character doesn't mean you have to understand his childhood. It means you understand him in the moment, the way that we came to understand Hannibal Lecter through his behavior in Silence of the Lambs, even when all we knew of his backstory was his horrible acts.